“Do I Look Like I Don’t Belong Here?”

Working Girl and the Secrets of Class Politics

Working Girl (1988) | Art by Tony Stella
illustration by Tony Stella

Working Girl is bookended by two scenes that make me tear up every single time I watch, no matter what. The first is that majestic sweeping helicopter-shot opening, the one that finds Lady Liberty standing so tall and proud and protective before revealing Manhattan from an outsiders’ view—clearly, absent the smear of our grubby faces pressed tightly against the glass—towering buildings of glimmering, glistening glitter and glass, triumphant and powerful and magnificent. Let all the dreamers wake the nation, Carly Simon sings, her late-‘80s power ballad—equal parts hymnal and Hot 100, simultaneously inspiring and cheesy, but at any rate an earworm that will now likely be stuck in your head for the next hour or two—swelling. 

When I’m having a bad day, feeling defeated and depleted and hating New York or my job (often both), and wondering what I’m doing with my life for approximately the 187th time in the span of what feels like both too many and not enough years, I queue that opening scene on YouTube and it just hits. Its magical allure reminds me of all the reasons I came to New York and all the reasons to stay. It keeps me holding out for at least one more day for something, anything, to happen. Nevermind the fact that I don’t even know where else I’d possibly even go. It’s more the reinforcement of a belief that if anything will happen, it will happen here. 

Because New York, as Simon’s theme song and Mike Nichols’ direction suggest, is the new Jerusalem. It’s the land of opportunity. And they’re right. At least, I have to think they are. What has made New York so alluring for centuries is the idea that it is a city composed of people who were not born here, but came here. There is always a humbling, unifying reminder that many who call themselves a New Yorker were once a Something Else; it was in this city of immigrants both foreign and domestic that they molded themselves into something bigger and better. If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere, as the saying goes. It wouldn’t be a cliché if it wasn’t at least a little bit true, right? After all, what else would this ferry packed full of hustlers ready to make the most of what New York has to offer, ready to chase dreams—or at least try—represent?

At least, that’s what I always thought. The seductive, illusive dream of New York represented in Working Girl’s opening moments has slowly dimmed as I’ve grown older, the same way it fades away as we slowly zoom in on our heroine Tess McGill, blowing out birthday candles on a Hostess cupcake with her fellow secretary friends. The dream is just that: a dream. The reality is that it isn’t all movie magic with helicopter shots and anthemic theme songs. New York and the lives we live are often, if not much grittier and uglier, a lot more mundane. 

Working Girl is a film that gets that, a quintessential New York story told from the perspective of an outsider desperately yearning for a place among its gilded few.1 New York is a city of artifice and invention; to get what’s hers, Tess must learn all the open secrets of a game she has never been invited to play, and in doing so, must create a new version of herself, one in which her working class roots must be hidden away.

*

“I’m going to tell you a hard truth.” I was sitting in a soon-to-be former boss’ office, the walls stripped of her framed art, her desk accessories packed neatly in a box that sat in the corner. It was one of her last days at our company, and with few fucks left to be had, the already straight-shooter was spitting out even more unfiltered thoughts than usual. She continued: “You are a work horse in a place that rewards show ponies.” 

If the latter half of her sentence was supposed to be a secret, it was one that wasn’t well-kept. But once said out loud, it felt like all the oxygen was being sucked from the room, even as it confirmed what I had been beginning to suspect was true. When I moved to New York, I was 19 years old and full of fantasies that if I just worked hard enough, I could not just do anything or be anything, but be one of the best. I could outgrow my humble working-middle class beginnings and mold myself into the woman I wanted to be. By the time I reached my mid-20s, I realized that just wasn’t entirely true. Success, in certain circles, isn’t simply rewarded to those who put in the most work. It’s a game, one you have to play the right way in order to win. There are rules to know and partnerships to align and calculations to make. If it feels like some people have a playbook with all the answers and you don’t, chances are you’re right.

Because the truth, the secret that so many people seem to know but don’t care to admit out loud—because it’s just one of those things you have to figure out for yourself—is that sometimes being the smartest person in the room means nothing when you’re still the lowest ranking. Sometimes the corporate ladder is a StairMaster: a lot of climbing, going nowhere.

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Melanie Griffith in Working Girl (1988) | 20th Century Fox
20th Century Fox

It’s easy to categorize Working Girl, broadly, as a sort of girl-power rom-com. You wouldn’t be entirely wrong; released against the backdrop of a boom of women entering the workforce and on the heels of films like Broadcast News and Baby Boom, Working Girl continues the story started by 9 to 5 nearly a decade earlier of the ways in which women are treated (or, rather, mistreated) in the office, and how they seek power.

The plot is a fairly simple Cinderella story: Tess McGill (Melanie Griffith—both spunky and endearingly vulnerable) is a 30-year-old Wall Street-by-way-of Staten Island secretary who can’t seem to get out of the pink collar ghetto that is the secretary pool, despite countless hours of night school, speech class, and savvy intelligence. Her male colleagues lurch, her cheating boyfriend (Alec Baldwin in an early role that would become his calling card: slimeball, but still lowkey hot) is pressuring her to settle down with him, and her best friend Cyn (Joan Cusack—scene stealing and over-the-top), just doesn’t understand her burning ambition to move up when she could just be content to stay in her place. After an outburst involving a coke-snorting, porn-watching, lecherous boss (Kevin Spacey—prescient!), Tess gets reassigned to an executive new to the company, Katharine Parker (Sigourney Weaver—deliciously wicked). At first empowered by the thought of working for a woman, she soon discovers that Katharine stole her business idea and passed it off as her own. With Katharine laid up in a Switzerland hospital after a skiing accident, Tess seizes the chance to pose as her boss’ colleague and work with a fellow investment broker (Harrison Ford—at the peak, unquestionably, of his hotness) to land a major, but risky, deal with the idea that was hers all along. If Tess’ cover is blown—and it comes close, several times—then the jig is up and, as Cyn is often quick to point out, she’ll be even further behind than where she started: out of a job and with a ruined reputation. What could possibly go wrong?

But, of course, Working Girl is so much bigger than a Cinderella story. After all, it’s kind of hard to call anything a Cinderella story when the sought-after prize is a job, and winning a man on top of that just happens to be a lucky bonus. Working Girl, at its heart, is a film that examines the nuances of the intersection of class and feminism, packaged slyly in the form of a light-hearted, girl power-flavored workplace comedy. 

Looking at the film from the vantage point of today, it’s easy to see it as formulaic and unoriginal. Working class women infiltrating a world of elites in the Trojan horse of an assumed identity have become so overused in the past two decades of romantic comedies, from Maid in Manhattan (coincidentally, also written by Kevin Wade) to Second Act, that they’ve become a broad stereotype.2 What’s important to remember is that Working Girl was one of the first to implement this dynamic in the modern rom com, executed without resorting to broad brushstrokes under Mike Nichols’ perceptive direction.

By the time Working Girl came along, Nichols was riding high on a successful rebound decade full of wins both on Broadway, with shows like The Real Thing and Hurlyburly, and in Hollywood, with films like Silkwood and Heartburn. He was about as close to New York royalty as you could get. Still, he never quite shook the perpetual feeling that he, a Jewish immigrant who escaped Nazi Germany at the age of 7, was really an outsider looking in. In the early years of his career as half of the iconic Nichols and May, he developed this viewpoint into keen observations of urbane American idiosyncrasies, mining them for comedic material. Life is strange and sad and hard, but the things we do in order to move through it are often quite funny. 

It’s this deep understanding of the outsider that Nichols brings to Working Girl in full force. The humor, and understated social commentary, plays out in the details. It’s not the things people say so much as it is the way they say them. It’s the subtle differences in people’s behavior and relationships that distinguish the haves from the have nots, not only in terms of material wealth, but knowledge of unspoken social mores and privileges. Katharine picks up a phone and on the strength of a name drop and inexplicable fluent German upgrades her already-nice hotel suite to the absolute best. Tess is unaware that a social event has an open bar and arrives to a meeting carrying documents in a flimsy folder secured with a rubber band because she doesn’t own a nice briefcase. Jack moves through work events on natural charm and personality, without feeling the need to hustle and network, and affords a downtown apartment he often eschews for overnights in his office. These are all small character details that seem like throwaways at first glance, but upon closer look, tell you worlds about who these people are, and the different worlds they inhabit even as they circle each other. 

Nichols’ direction has bite—it isn’t hard to forget that his comedic origins skewered the non-problems of elites—but it’s never cold. It’s easy to poke fun at some of these characters and the ways they look at the world, particularly when viewed through the eyes of Tess, who knows what struggle actually looks like, but Nichols’ warmth invites you to scratch the surface a bit. Even the bad guys have his empathy. Katharine may be the villain, but not a flat one. You can understand her motivation, can practically smell her fearful drive. You can see, as she removes a colleague’s hand from her neck, that not even she is immune to the flirtations of men. Maybe she’s found a place among them with her smarts but, at the end of the day, can’t escape defaulting back to being another woman. There are no bad guys in Mike Nichols’ film, at least, not really. There are just real humans doing the best they can with varying degrees of tact.

*

“She takes me seriously…and I think it’s because she’s a woman. There’s none of that chasing around the desk crap. It’s like she wants to be my mentor, which is exactly what I needed.”

Tess is a work horse: proud, strong, and dependable, though slightly wild, ready to buck you at any moment. She’s not as sleek as the elegant thoroughbred mares Katharine Parker likely grew up riding for show. Her edges are rough—she’d get points off for appearance — and she is far from delicate. Thin, yes, but notably softer than Katharine’s bony, lithe figure; she certainly wouldn’t break a bone skiing in the alps. Anyway, she’d have to learn how to ski first. 

She may be the most ambitious person in her firm, but to her Wall Street bosses, she’s just another secretary to be kept in her place. Her ideas may be sharp, but they’re hidden under hair too big, spoken by a voice still touched with a Staten Island accent that speech classes haven’t been able to wear away. Her night school community college degree means nothing to men with Ivy League educations. They will never take her seriously. Tess is well aware of her plight—and any time she expresses her frustrations, she does so loudly and unskillfully, for the entire office to see, thereby digging herself into a deeper hole—but when she finds herself working for a new boss, one who seems elegant and intelligent and, most of all, is a woman, she sees a light at the end of the tunnel. Katharine, she believes, is an end to her days of being little more than a skirt with a pen and paper. 

Katharine is her peer,3  one who will listen to her and treat her as a teammate, or so she thinks. “We have a uniform,” Katharine tells Tess within minutes of meeting her. It’s the first bit of practical, useful advice we’ve seen Tess receive. Tess’ look might fit in among her peers—compared to Cyn’s towering hair and extravagant makeup, it’s refined—but her outward appearance serves as a constant reminder of the class divide between who she is and who she aspires to become.

Being the chic show pony gets you further faster. “Simple, elegant, impeccable. Dress shabbily, they notice the dress. Dress impeccably they notice the woman,” Katharine says. In her first moments on screen, Sigourney Weaver plays Katharine with sleek duplicity. Her tone indicates that she genuinely wants to offer advice—she knows just how to play her position as a woman in a man’s world4—yet, from her place of privilege, she is maddeningly ignorant to the fact that Tess does not dress to her taste not just because no one has set the example for her, but because, on a secretary’s salary, she cannot afford to do so. It’s this duality early on that keeps Katharine from becoming a cartoonish villain; even though you know she’s the antagonist in this story, you can’t help but be a little seduced by her elegance, can’t help but feel a bit like Tess as she sheepishly nods her understanding, taking to the bathroom immediately after to remove her jangly bracelets and wipe the makeup from her face. 

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Melanie Griffith and Sigourney Weaver in Working Girl (1988) | 20th Century Fox

“You don’t get anywhere in this world by waiting for what you want to come to you. You make it happen. Watch me, Tess. Learn from me.”

What is perceived today to be the most outdated part of Working Girl’s (aside from the big hair and shoulder pads and pre-Giuliani New York) is actually the most clever. Pitting Tess and Katharine against each other is bigger than framing female success as a fight for one seat at the table—even if the climax of the film includes a scene that frames it as such.5 It’s about exposing the ways class politics decide which women are allowed to be invited to the table in the first place.

Because what Carly Simon didn’t sing in her theme song is that opportunities are asking for the taking, sure—but some voices are louder than others. The cost of living is rising, gentrification is growing, and young transplants moving to New York with next to nothing to make something of themselves are little more than hazy memories of halcyon days. New York—today more so than ever, though the trend was burgeoning in Working Girl’s Reaganomics time—is a city designed in such a manner that few other than the affluent can climb to the top. In many of New York’s largest industries, like media or finance, success is often won by those who can not only afford the price of admission—unpaid internships and low-paying, benefit-less entry level jobs—but those who have connections to secure positions in ever-shrinking career fields.

In other words, it helps to be born 300 yards ahead of the starting line and have cheerleaders along the way. New York is a city rife with show ponies, simply because few have ever had to know what it’s like to be a work horse. When their class powers are threatened, existing bonds between gender quickly slip away as a form of protection.

We see this best in an early scene between the two women. With Tess literally at her feet, Katharine urges once more for her to watch and learn from her example, before revealing that she floated her business idea to higher ups and it was rejected. It wasn’t all bad, she says, encouraging a dejected, teary Tess to come to her with more ideas in the future.

Of course, we know Katharine thought there was something to Tess’ idea. By lying about its reception, we realize that Tess’ early assumption that Katharine being a woman meant she would be a warmer, more inspiring boss, eager to pull a fellow sister up was false. Katharine is just as bad as the men she’s worked for, just in a different way. She doesn’t dismiss Tess’ intelligence; rather, she takes advantage of it. In this moment, Katharine has Tess exactly where she wants her: firmly beneath her, where she is welcome to, with her direction and guidance, follow a few steps behind, but never surpass her. Tess’ good idea stands to disrupt the status quo between them. Feminism is bisected by classism; the strength of sisterhood in a patriarchal society strains under the threat of an inverted class power dynamic.

In order to protect her own standing, Katharine makes the choice to steal her idea and use it as her own. It’s Tess’ discovery of this secret shortly after that sets the plot in motion. Tess’ decision to hide her true identity and pose as her boss’ equal isn’t so much about enacting revenge as it is getting what she thinks she deserves. She realizes that Katharine might have had a leg up going into this world, but she’s likely had to keep many secrets and tell several lies to stay there. If Tess wants to get anywhere, she’ll have to do the same.

*

“Sometimes, I sing and dance around the house in my underwear. Doesn’t make me Madonna. Never will.”

Melanie Griffith faced an uphill battle to play Tess Parker. Early in the film’s development stages, Nichols and producer Doug Wick floated the idea of casting Madonna (“there’s something very interesting about her,” Nichols said), or maybe Michelle Pfeiffer.6 By the time it was in the studio’s hands, Scott Rudin, then-president of production, was pushing for Shelley Long. If anything, he wanted a big name. Griffith, engineering a comeback from a career derailed by substance abuse issues and typecast pinup roles, was decidedly not. Still, she and her team kept pushing. “I loved this role, and I knew I could do it,” Griffith told the Hollywood Reporter. “My story is Tess’ story.” 

Well, sort of. Griffith might have been an underdog in some ways, but not all; at the end of the day, she was still someone born into a Hollywood family and a place of privilege. I am not like Melanie Griffith; I grew up decidedly working-middle class, for awhile blissfully ignorant of, then, by the time I was a teenager, acutely aware of the fact that my modest split level ranch, so different from the sprawling old colonials across town, was likely one of the households bringing the median income of my small upper-middle class suburb down a little.

But in many ways, my story is also Tess’ story, and the universality of the underdog is one of the reasons why Working Girl endures even as times change and class divides grow wider.7 I grew up wanting to be a part of a world that was not naturally my own. I didn’t simply long for the shiny glamour wealth and success gives off; I thought, naively, that I was meant to have it, that my humble beginnings were an inconvenience, but one I was smart enough to work my way out of. 

That’s doable, to an extent. The older I get, the more I realize its limitations. Like Tess, I’ve worked my way into an industry full of people whose upbringings and lifestyles are so different from mine that it can feel at times like I’m playing a game of catchup to play the part and fit in. I’m not quite of this world, much as I have wanted to be, but I’m certainly not of my old one, either, and I’ve had to hide parts of myself in both.

Midway through the film, Tess shows up late to a local dive for Cyn’s engagement party—“I got stuck at work,” she explains—dressed impeccably with her newly-cropped hair in perfect place. She looks amazing. She looks different. When she greets Mick, he remarks: “You look good. Classy. What, did you have to go to traffic court or something?”

Maybe he’s joking. Maybe he’s ignorant. Maybe he’s judging her, the way his eyes seem to ask so you think you’re better than us? It’s probably a little of all three. I’ve felt that sting countless times over the past decade when I have found myself home for the holidays, entertaining teasing questions from rural extended family about why I look “so fancy” or why I’m always too busy with work to come home more than once a year or, the worst of all, when I’ll “move back to Harrisburg, get married, and have kids.”

Tess’ friends and my family support us, there’s no doubt about that. But there’s an underlying current of confusion that cuts through to the surface sometimes. I hate to play armchair psychologist, but I’d call it internalized fear: Everyone wants more from life, but for people who come from longstanding working class lineages, pursuing more isn’t often encouraged. What good can come of that, of not just being happy with what you have and accepting your place? This is how life was for their grandparents and their parents and now them. And if this life isn’t good enough for you, then what does that make us? 

Our ambition is both a blessing and a curse: it’s our ticket out of one world, but it doesn’t quite land us in the other, so we run the risk of forever being stuck in limbo.

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Working Girl (1988) | 20th Century Fox

So about those bookended shots. Tess has, improbably, won. She’s exposed Katharine’s lie and scored a new job in the process. Sitting in her new office—dismayed after a momentary mix-up to learn she even has an office—she dials Cyn. “Guess where I am,” she grins, before we see Cyn explode with cheers from her place in the secretary pool. I’m sorry, but if that moment doesn’t get you at least a little choked up or feeling like you’ve won too, you might have two double-A batteries in the chest cavity where your heart is supposed to be.

Herein lies the subtle genius of Mike Nichols. Slowly, the camera pulls back. It’s practically the same shot as the film’s opening, but reversed. It’s a humbling, sweet, if not a little bit sad at the same time, note that keeps the happy ending from feeling too saccharine. As triumphant as Tess’ victory is—and we can assume from the way she interacts with her secretary that her success is a small crack that will spiderweb out as she pulls others up the way she had hoped Katharine would help her—it is just that: a victory for Tess. The things that mean so much to us, the things we long for desperately—they don’t often affect many more people other than ourselves. The fate of the world doesn’t really hang on our individual successes or failures. So no matter how loud Cyn and the other secretaries cheer that one of their own made it, it’s mostly symbolic. They are still where they are. The success is Tess’, and Tess’ alone.

As the camera pulls back, Tess grows smaller until she becomes a speck, just another anonymous office window in an anonymous office building in a city of millions. This city is full of Tesses—and Katharines and Cyns and Jacks—and they could be any one of those people whose office window you glance at. They could be me. They could be you.

  1. Screenwriter Kevin Wade often biked near the Staten Island Ferry’s port in Battery Park. Intrigued by the image of women in skirt suits and sneakers changing from grubby sneakers into dress shoes en masse, he envisioned telling “a modern-day immigrant story of a person who comes here not really speaking the language, not with the right clothes, not knowing the customs, but with smarts.”
  2. Although they are executed with varying levels of success, many more recent takes on this trope—most notably Wade’s Maid in Manhattan—expand their worldview past Working Girl’s white feminist trappings to explore the lives of and obstacles facing working class women of color.
  3. I can never be sure whether or not Katharine is lying when she tells Tess that she’s also a fresh 30. (Sigourney Weaver, at the time of filming, was actually almost 40, and looks it.) In an industry that fetishizes rare female leadership and worships wunderkinds, I wouldn’t put it past Katharine to find it in her favor to fudge her age a little to impress all the more. Whether or not the audience believes that to be true, though, isn’t as important as the fact that Tess—naive, trusting, instantly enchanted—believes it is.
  4. Katharine has mastered the art of being a businesswoman who acts like a woman — the crimson dress in a sea of grey pantsuits — not like how a man would act if he were a woman. Playing up her sexuality to work the confines of the patriarchy to her advantage is a move not taught in any of the night classes Tess has ever taken.
  5. Really, though, it’s not that off. We’d like to claim we’re much more advanced some 30 years later, that women have greater equality in the workplace and plenty more proverbial seats at the table today, but, it’s wishful thinking. In many rooms, the seats are still in short supply. According to a recent Wall Street Journal study, women make up just 5.2% of CEOs and 11.7% of top executives below CEOS of the country’s top 3,000 companies. More, this rate of growth has slowed considerably in the past five years.
  6. Pfeiffer was quickly shot down as a possibility because she was…*checks notes*…too beautiful.
  7. On original posters for the film, the tagline reads: “For anyone who’s ever won. For anyone who’s ever lost. And for everyone who’s still in there trying.” You could apply the generic, yet affecting (it makes me teary, OKAY!), tagline to a slew of films.